Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Remembering: Grambling enters period of turmoil

Nick's note: This was, of course, just the beginning of a remarkable period of change for Grambling at the dawn of the administration of school president Horace Judson (pictured at right). In the four years that followed, Grambling would see Willie Jeffries come and go as athletics director, followed by an interim and then Troy Mathieu. Spears would be let go in 2006 and replaced by Rod Broadway. Then, in a series of shattering losses over an eight-month period, Grambling would mark the passings of seminal legends Collie J. Nicholson (September 2006) -- who is extensively quoted in the following piece -- then Ernie Ladd (March 2007) and Eddie Robinson (April 2007).

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Back to earth
The good ol' days of steadiness in the GSU athletics department are over.
July 12, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Will Grambling State ever again see the bedrock stability it once knew?

Not in today's topsy-turvy world, said Collie J. Nicholson, the sports information director at GSU for 30 years, beginning in 1948.

But even Nicholson is taken back by 2004's evolving situation. "There have been changes made over the years," he said, "but not to this degree."

A year ago, fans of the Grambling State football program were still savoring a third consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

The Tigers didn't add a fourth - finishing with a respectable nine wins, but still one game short of the 2003 SWAC title game in Birmingham.

A year ago, Michael Roach, coordinator for each of those championship teams, was running GSU's defense. One game into the 2003 season, he resigned - citing personal and family concerns.

A year ago, receiver Tramon Douglas had just broken future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's conference record for receiving yards. An off-season injury would so alter his senior season that Douglas would go undrafted by the NFL.

Heishma Northern, in his sixth season at Grambling as coach of defensive backs and special teams, took over for Roach. Defensive line coach Gabe Northern, in his third season with the Tigers, handled the linebackers last season.

But as 2004 dawned, Heishma Northern was not asked to continue as defensive coordinator. Gabe Northern was fired.

Coach Doug Williams, the architect of GSU's first SWAC titles and first winning seasons since 1994, hired Tom Lavigne as defensive coordinator - but would resign his post before Lavigne took over. Williams is now with the NFL's Tampa Bay franchise.

Lavigne, a GSU graduate, was subsequently fired by interim head coach Melvin Spears, Williams' long-time offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

A year ago, Albert Dennis III - a former player whose father was also one of Robinson's first team captains - was the athletics director. He had overseen three conference titles in football, the completion of a new baseball facility and the groundbreaking on a basketball gym.

But, after the University of Louisiana System board hired Horace Judson as new president for GSU, Judson fired Dennis on his first official day in office.

Then, an item on Spears' resume came into question - a situation that was apparently resolved after a trip to Northern Arizona University over the weekend.

All of this turbulence seems particularly noteworthy when placed alongside a bit of relevant trivia: Williams was just the second GSU coach since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency.

Eddie Robinson had earned 408 career victories from 1941 through 1997, setting an all-time record for wins that would stand until last season - and he did it all at this country school, located in the hills of western Lincoln Parish.

Williams, his replacement, would coach for 51 fewer years at Grambling. A school that was the very model of stability has apparently caught up with the times.

"I don't think it will ever be as stable as it used to be," Nicholson said. "Things have changed to such a degree, that I think this is the norm nowadays."

Questions about a master's degree from Northern Arizona prompted Spears to travel to Flagstaff to resolve the issue over the weekend. A dean there confirmed to The News-Star on Friday that Spears had completed the required courses, but still needed to finish minor paperwork to receive his degree. His transcript was expected to be updated early this week.

"Really it's a question of having a degree posted, not having completed the degree requirements," said William Wright, chair of the department of research, foundations and leadership - in which Spears studied at Northern Arizona from 1993 until taking job with Williams before then 1998 season.

But that still leaves the question of who will be athletics director at Grambling State - and what all of this has done to a team that some expected to return to championship form in 2004.

"My first concern," said Williams, upon hearing that Spears' resume was under review, "is for those players. I pray for them."

So far, the team has tried to carry on as usual, said senior linebacker Kenneth Pettway.

"When it involves your coach, it's going to be on the players' mind all the time," Pettway said. "He comes in every morning, then to every workout every evening. He's in his office if you need someone to talk to. Then, when there comes a time that he might not be there, it's difficult for the team."

Judson hasn't officially addressed the AD situation since asking Dennis to step down more than a week ago.

While the school rebounded in football during Dennis' tenure, Grambling State hasn't captured the SWAC Commissioner's Cup, an all-sports trophy, since 1997-98 - the last year before Dennis took over for Robert Piper.

Left unfinished is an away game against Mississippi Valley, which outside promoters hoped to move from Itta Bena, Miss., to Chicago's Soldier Field. Dennis said just days before he was fired that GSU had still not completed negotiations on moving that contest.

Then, there is the opening for a defensive coordinator. Spears was reviewing applications before questions about his resume had him on a plane to Arizona.

"I've got applications coming in, but the administration hasn't signed off on the new job description for the position. Until that point, we are not ready to comment," he said last week. "A bunch of guys have sent resumes. Quite naturally, you're talking about Grambling, so a lot of people are going to be interested."

Despite such upheaval, GSU assistant Mark Hall still leads the team in a tough but reliable regimen of weights and summertime conditioning. Players say there's nothing more that can be done, during this off-season of change.

"It must be very difficult for them to understand that these problems are off the field," said Nicholson, major architect of the legendary Bayou Classic. "But they can still make Grambling proud."

A year ago, the path didn't seem so rocky. But Pettway says that doesn't mean the team is confused about what's ahead.

"As a team we came together and had a meeting," said Pettway, a 2003 transfer from Southern Arkansas who was this past spring's most impressive performer. "Our workout stayed intense. We still show up for running every day. Even though things are going on around the team, our goal remains the same: To win the championship. We are staying focused, even though things are going on."

Monday, October 01, 2007

Remembering: The debut of 'The Rob'

TIGER PAUSE: Grambling's Robinson Stadium opened 25 seasons ago with fanfare, blowout
September 15, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Football had been, more often than not, the last thing on Eddie Robinson's mind.

The longtime former Grambling coach's 1983 opener against Alcorn State, handily won but never forgotten, would be the first game played at a new facility bearing Robinson's name.

Not that Alcorn State hadn't been an entertaining, formidable foe. Still, even while his assistants tried to script a game knotted at 7-0 during halftime, Robinson was elsewhere — fulfilling the obligations of a dignitary more than that of a ball coach.

"It was a struggle for him," said longtime GSU assistant Melvin "Jim" Lee. "He had made so many sacrifices. He knew that the program would profit very much from a new stadium."
So, even while the game teetered in the balance, Robinson could be found speaking before a packed crowd outside the locker room.

"Things are happening today," he said, "that usually never happen while the person is living."

Grambling's suffocating defense, coupled with a canny misdirection on offense, would do the rest. The Tigers scored a trio of late-game touchdowns to secure the dominating 28-0 victory.

“Our team was excited about becoming part of history, the first team to play in the stadium named after the man that was our coach,” said Robert “Big Bird” Smith, then an All-America defender for Robinson.

Alcorn is remembered now as the first opponent to descend into Grambling’s unique, now-legendary sunken structure – but not the first to leave with a loss. Robinson would win a total of 37 games at “The Rob” before retiring 15 seasons later.

“Walking down the hill, it presented quite a challenge for any opposing team,” said Lee, an offensive assistant for 40 seasons at GSU. “One player saw the stadium and said it looked like going down inside Hades.”

Grambling’s offensive line had been decimated by graduation, leaving returning senior quarterback Hollis Brent exposed. Calvin Nicholas, a talented safety, was moved to receiver in an effort to replace the departed Rufus Stevens.

Robinson spoke with what appeared to be a shy candor about GSU’s struggles. He said Lee had been forced to tinker with the team’s fabled Wing-T offense – adding some I-formation looks.

Points, Robinson guessed, would have to come from running back James Robinson, the Tigers’ second leading rusher from a season before. He’d be joined in the backfield by Texas A&M transfer Ronny James.

“We’re going to use the ‘I’ as much as we can make it work,” Robinson said, in the days leading up to the game. “It just adds a lot to our attack, if we can open some holes.”

During the transition, Grambling was going to rely on coordinator Fred Collins’ muscular “Trees of Terror” defense, which went on to produce seven of the program’s 12 all-conference players that year – including first-teamers Smith, Reginald Pugh, James Polk and Ed Scott.

Robinson gave a stirring pre-game speech, Smith recalled, and his unit rose to the challenge.

“Coach made the comment that he never made a tackle, he never scored a touchdown, and he never won a game,” Smith said. “He said the wins did not belong to him. They belonged to the players – to (well-known former Grambling standouts) Gary (‘Big Hands’ Johnson), Doug (Williams), Sammy (White) and Trumaine (Johnson).”

GSU would have to take down a resurgent Alcorn State team, led by fellow Southwestern Athletic Conference coaching legend Mario Casem.

Grambling’s battles with Alcorn were already the stuff of lore, with Robinson winning or sharing 13 league titles up to that point, while Casem took six.

ASU, however, had been without a championship since 1979 – and was just 16-14 over the previous three campaigns, falling to Grambling in both 1981-82. Casem was building toward a final championship as a coach in ’85, though, and boasted six returners on offense and eight on defense.

He pushed Grambling to a defensive, scoreless deadlock through the initial quarter.

Alcorn sacked Brent seven times in the first half, totalling more than 40 yards in losses. GSU linebacker Mike Dennis’ interception return for a touchdown had been the lone first-half points.

All that talk of switching to the ‘I,’ though, proved to a clever Robinson ruse. Grambling rarely called the formation – and it was, in fact, the GSU passers who secured this historic first win.

Alcorn was apparently caught off guard.

Grambling's Hollis and Anthony Anderson combined for 247 yards in the air against a defense that would go on to lead the SWAC in 1983, while Alcorn’s two passers could manage only 81.

Grambling’s Marvin Thomas, Wayne Hill and Nicholas hauled in those second-half TD catches. Most impressive was the 91-yard streak by the converted defender Nicholas, who hauled in an Anderson pass on a post pattern with 5:21 remaining, and ran through a defender on the way to the final points of the game.

Meanwhile, the Grambling defense never let Alcorn past the Grambling 33.

GSU only allowed 44 yards rushing over the initial two quarters. Glenn Hall also added another pick late, securing the game with 1:47 left.

The flamboyant Casem, during a raucous post-game press conference, took it all in stride: “Playing Grambling is like making love to a gorilla,” he said. “You can not quit until he gets enough.”

Smith chuckles at the memory. “Opening day, we did get enough,” he said.

The Robinson Stadium stands already teemed with 10,000 fans as grand-opening ceremonies began an hour and a half before Alcorn took the field.

Then-Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen spoke, as did Robinson – who was supposed to be the guest of honor. An abiding humility, however, wouldn’t allow Robinson to completely inhabit the spotlight.

With him was wife Doris, their children, and his mother. Robinson talked about them, and about his players.

“When you say Robinson Stadium,” he said that day, “it has to mean every person who has played football here. This honor that has been bestowed on us is a great one.”

Built then at a cost of $7.5 million dollars, the facility was said to seat 22,500 fans and includes a unique tiger-inspired design on the chairbacks below the westside pressbox. Striped in the team’s familiar black and gold colors, “GSU” is spelled out in red – a tip of the hat to former Grambling president R.W.E. “Prez” Jones, who favored this accent color.

Smith, who had been a freshman recruit when construction was first begun in 1980, was among those who witnessed this remarkable transformation.

“To have an opportunity to watch that spot turn from a wooded area with a pond into a deep hole on our campus and finally into a football stadium was amazing,” said Smith, later a line coach at Grambling.

The stadium was originally named for the Robinson family, since state law prohibits the honoring of a living person. That is expected to change in the wake of Robinson’s passing in April of this year at age 88, the result of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Treen acknowledged, during the opening event, that Robinson Stadium would always stand as a tribute to Division I’s winningest coach.

“We all know who the distinguished member of that family is,” Treen said. “Sept. 3 will go down as an historic date because we are here today to dedicate this magnificent facility to this institution, and to a person who is an institution – Coach Eddie Robinson.”

Getting there had been a force of will for Robinson, who battled through budget cuts that radically changed design elements – to the very elements themselves. A late-summer rainshower caused one side of the hollowed-out ground to collapse in a mudslide, threatening the opener.

Robinson, involved in every facet of construction, deeply felt each setback. But he never wavered.

“He put a lot being into developing that stadium,” Lee said. “There was pressure to keep it going forward. It wasn’t an easy thing – though it was well deserved.”

Grambling played Casem to a virtual draw while he was at Alcorn, though Robinson eventually opened up a 13-8 lead after Casem returned to coaching at Southern.

Robinson would retire in 1997 having amassed 408 wins over a career that spanned six decades to the early 1940s. Through it all, their mutual respect endured – as did Casem’s propensity for the quick, appropriate quip.

Attending Robinson’s funeral earlier this year, Casem attempted to frame Robinson’s towering presence: “He was like Mount Fuji in Japan. He was always there, and he was always majestic.”

Robinson will be remembered again, as Grambling opens the 2007 home slate on Saturday against Alabama A&M. It will be the first game held at Robinson Stadium since its namesake’s passing.

Smith said this place, even as three head coaches have followed at GSU over the last decade, will always echo with cheers for Robinson.

Robinson himself seemed completely aware of that part of his legacy, the one made of concrete and steel, as he left the stadium on opening night more than a quarter century ago.

The suddenly quiet coach, awash in emotion, reached down and grabbed a single blade of grass from the Robinson Stadium turf.

“That we should have been thought worthy of this distinction gives us mixed emotions,” Robinson said, “of humility and profound gratitude.”
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Lee's list: Best ever at 'The Rob'

As Robinson Stadium enters its 25th season, I asked longtime Grambling assistant Melvin "Jim" Lee -- who coached at his alma mater for 40 seasons after helping the Tigers to a 1955 national championship as a player under Eddie Robinson -- to name his Top 5 most memorable games at the facility.

First, there was a good bit of reminescing: "We gained so much from our time with Coach," Lee said. "We got a chance to see the country and a portion of the world. It was something that being in a smaller school, you never thought would happen."

Then, we got down to Lee's list:

Grambling gamely battled, but ultimately fell to A&T by two, 37-35, in the legendary coach's final home contest.

After 57 seasons, and a still-standing Divison I record of 408 wins, Robinson's remarkable career was through. Lee had played for him, then coached with him, for nearly 50 of those years.

"It was memorable because it was the last game, and what it meant to Coach," Lee said, "not because of way we played. The kids tried their very best, but we just didn't have the talent."

Grambling's march to a final national black college championship for Robinson included an emotional win over Jackson State, who had bested GSU in each of the previous two seasons.

Grambling won 34-31.

"We were able to have a really good game from Stevie Anderson out of Jonesboro," Lee said. "We beat them, after they'd had our number for years. That was a good team and a great game."

Lee remembers well TSU's "really big hitters," including future New York Giants standout Michael Strahan, then a junior.

The game, as was often the case back in the day with Texas Southern, was very tight. A homecoming crowd at "The Rob" brought additional intensity to the proceedings.

"We got down to the very last, and Gilad Landau came in," Lee said. "Two seconds on the clock, and he kicked it right down the middle for the win."

Final score, Grambling 30-27.

Freshman kicker Willian Wrighten, on his fourth attempt, kicked a 21-yard field goal with no time remaining to give South Carolina State a two-point win during a nationally broadcast Thursday night ESPN game from Robinson Stadium.

The first kick was nearly from midfield, a desperation move. But a series of penalties on Grambling, including roughing the kicker and offsides, eventually made this nearly a chip shot.

Grambling fell 15-13.

"We weren't satisfied with the outcome, of course, but it's certainly one I remember," Lee said. "What a game."

There has never, and may well never be, a more famous game at "The Rob" than this titanic struggle against future NFL MVP and Super Bowl quarterback Steve McNair.

Grambling scored and scored and scored, only to be matched stride for stride by McNair -- a senior who had never lost to Robinson and Lee. GSU won in the final tally, but barely: 62-56. And even then, the Tigers had to fight off a late ASU drive.

"It came down, again, to a last play with just seconds on the clock," Lee said. "Thank goodness we were leading by a few. That was a very satisfying."